Reading fees are straight up classist bullshit. And this idea that they weed out writers who are not serious enough is heartbreaking bullshit. All of the things that are marks of a “serious writer” are, conveniently, also things that tend to cost money. Go figure.
–Margaret Bashaar, Author of Stationed by the Gateway, Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel and Rungs (with Lauren Eggert-Crowe), editor and founder of Hyacinth Girl Press, and contributor to NonBinary Review
I keep hearing the “serious writers” argument for charging fees and I believe that this is an argument born of a broken system steeped in privilege. In my lifetime, I have been so poor that at times I didn’t even have $5 to put gas in my car, much less use it to use it to submit to a contest. During those times in my life, not entering a contest with a $10 fee had nothing to do with my level of seriousness or talent, but more to do with the fact that I was poor and living paycheck to paycheck, with nothing left over.
Using myself as an example it’s safe to say that a writer’s level of financial solvency and their “seriousness” as a writer are not commensurate states. The “serious writer” argument is an example of cognitive bias leading to a fallacy, and it is the bias borne of the literary class system that allows this fallacy to remain the “go-to” argument when discussing contest fees. The flawed logic is this: if a writer is “serious” about their work, they will follow a certain set of behaviors, systems, and a predetermined path—and that these steps will result in success. Ergo, deviation from this path means first, that the writer is not “serious” about their work, and second, deviation will result in failure.
This fallacy of the “serious writer” is not only a classist invention, but also a double-bind: conflicting messages which ultimately negate each other. The fallacy of the “serious writer” includes the argument that “serious writers” will invest money in seeing their work succeed—it makes no distinction between an investment of $5 or $75; it simply assumes that the “serious writer” has disposable income, and that disposable income should be spent on one’s work to prove “seriousness” of craft.
Other things the “serious writer” does? Spends X amount of time per day working on their craft—but there is no mention of when/how this should happen, how one arranges their writing time around “real world” responsibilities, such as full-time jobs, family responsibilities, school, etc. School is another element of the “serious writer”—they will go to school (which costs money, meaning more work or more debt), as well as a time commitment.
The “serious writer” fallacy includes more assumptions, of course, but the core of each assumption is the same: the things required of the “serious writer” are things that require disposable income, and/or leisure time. Working writers, who are often economically challenged at best, have very little of either. And yet, the fallacy of the “serious writer” burdens writers with the idea that taking on more debt to go to school, then never being able to pay off that debt as an adjunct professor with little time to then invest in your own work and even less disposable cash to do so is the hallmark of the “serious writer”, though it’s a circular argument that negates itself and manipulates the writer into believing that their “failure to launch” is their own fault, for not being “serious” enough about their work. So the idea that contest fees “weed out” writers who aren’t “serious” about their work is a line that we have been fed in order to perpetuate a system of gatekeepers (who, surprise surprise, uphold the patriarchal values of privilege and positionality).
When literary publishing was primarily physical publishing (for which writers were paid enough to earn a living), the gatekeepers were agents, editors, and publishers. You had to build a resume, or know someone to break in. The shift to online publishing made for a more egalitarian literary scene: you didn’t really need an agent upfront anymore, you could break in more easily, even if you didn’t “know someone.” There were fewer gatekeepers. Which is where high contest fees and the argument of the “serious writer” started to take root. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that 25 years ago there weren’t any fee-based contests—I assure you, there were. My first few disastrous years of submitting were only to contests advertised in the Classifieds section of Poets and Writers magazine (the purchase of which, was itself, a luxury; many times I simply wrote down addresses and fees while browsing in the bookstore). Why? Because resources were fewer, harder to find, and my peers/mentors, I found, were less generous in sharing their information. Rarely does a broken system ever admit to its brokenness. It’s not like anyone running the contests with the highest fees are ever going to say, “Yeah, we keep the fees high to keep out the riffraff, you know, those SJW poets, the women, the writers of color, we like to keep this contest the Talented White Guy Show.”
Bias exists in grey areas, liminal spaces, the cracks of plausible deniability. An editor can argue, “It’s not that we don’t want to publish writers of color, it’s just that they don’t send their work, and we read blind to let the work speak for itself,” and believe that they’re not upholding patriarchial values, because they never said, “We only like to publish this one demographic that has historically been the ones running the show.”
The refusal to take on the burden of balancing the scale in a system that has long been unbalanced is like a lie of omission vs. a lie of commission. When do we, collectively, hold ourselves accountable for the broken system and how we keep using it, instead of fixing it or scrapping it altogether? Let’s look between the lines: When we argue “It’s not that we don’t want to publish writers of color, it’s just that they don’t send their work,” we are saying, It’s not my job to make writers who have felt unwelcome in this publication feel welcome, it is their job to knock on a door that has historically not just been shut to them, but slammed in their face. We are asking marginalized writers to be both the lesson and the teacher, instead of educating ourselves and actively seeking these voices in order to bring balance. When we say “We read blind to let the work speak for itself,” we are saying, “quality of work” has been defined by white patriarchy in academia. Deviations from what is considered to be “serious writing” will be written off as poor writing, rather than considered on their own merits. Here is an easier way to look at this: A burrito is a terrible example of sushi. But a burrito is a great example of a Tex-Mex dish, just as sushi is an excellent example of a Japanese dish. Academia has told us that sushi is the only food, and that anything that isn’t sushi isn’t good to eat. We know that this isn’t true, and yet, these contests are skewed to only pick out the best pieces of sushi, and to disregard burritos, gyros, pizza, eggrolls and whatever other food metaphor you want to insert here.
The fallacy of the “serious writer” is a glass ceiling, invented to create a need for gatekeepers who keep some writers out, while rewarding other writers simply for showing up. The tragedy of this fallacy is that it blames the writer for being unable to shatter a glass ceiling that was designed specifically to exclude them from rising higher. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t game this system—like any system, there’s a way to game it. In the next installment of this series, I’m going to be talking to you about the odds, solutions, gambles and end-runs around these contests. They want to see a “serious writer”? How about a sneaky one?
Allie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems; And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern Wild; This Is How It Ends; Pictures From The Center Of The Universe; wingless, scorched & beautiful; Before Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless